Red Summer: When White America Went to War With Black America
World War I ended in 1919. The War to End All Wars did no such thing. The postwar era was defined by violence, upheaval, wealth inequality, economic collapse, and basically every imaginable societal misstep. The widespread idiocy led directly to World War II, the War to End All Countries. In the midst of the post-WWI era, white America went to war again. This time, they fought Black America. The result was a resounding defeat for Black Americans.
In the summer of 1919, groups of armed white supremacists terrorized Black Americans around the country. The Tulsa massacre, which took place two years after Red Summer, is the most notorious of this type of terrorist attack. In Greenwood, Oklahoma, Black Americans created a thriving community. Greenwood featured banks, grocery stores, salons, lawyers, doctors, etc. Every hallmark of stable city life. It had even been nicknamed Black Wall Street for its wealth.
Then, one day, a black kid got in an elevator with a white woman. Violent racists used this as an excuse to destroy Black Wall Street. They used guns, trucks, and fire bombs. At the end of the massacre, the city was destroyed. The residents of Greenwood itemized their losses, if they could, and filed insurance claims. Over and over, their claims were denied. They were rejected on the premise that the massacre was actually a riot. We know the real reason though. Those uppity negroes needed to be reminded of the hierarchy.
In Mississippi Burning, Gene Hackman’s character relays a story that culminates in the lesson “if you ain’t any better than a nigger, son, then who are you better than?”
That feeling spread across the country because white supremacists aren’t afraid of black poverty or black struggle. They’re scared we’ll prove white supremacy a lie. They’re scared we’ll prosper. They’re scared we’ll be okay. They’re scared there’s nothing wrong with us.
So they destroyed what we built.
Media, fiction and nonfiction, has recently begun exploring the Greenwood Massacre. However, the events of Red Summer 1919 remain lost. Not lost, hidden.
Journalists, government figures, and a frightened white public were terrified of growing communist influence among Black communities. The Bolsheviks had seized Russia in 1917, and the idea of an egalitarian society was obviously appealing to Black Americans. Seems to me, the majority could have blunted the appeal by extending some equality towards Black communities. Instead, they chose violence.
From April until November of 1919, there were at least 38 instances of white supremacists attacking Black Americans. These attacks had dozens of causes, but chief among them was the massive influx of young men returning from World War I. Servicemembers, black and white, returned to a struggling economy. Everywhere in the world at every point in history, violence follows large groups of unemployed soldiers.
Newspapers, Senate committees, and the white supremacists themselves all blamed the violence on secret communists influencing Black Americans. They argued that Black Americans were traitors to the United States who were working with/for the Bolsheviks. This was largely untrue. Furthermore, that would be immaterial. Lynchings and racial terrorist attacks in America predate the Bolshevik Revolution. White Americans had been brutalizing Black Americans since 1619. Red Summer is unique to history because, unlike past slaughters, Black folks didn’t turn the other cheek.
All throughout the country, Black Americans formed armed organizations to resist the terror campaigns. It stands to reason that this resistance actually intensified the bloodshed. It’s not known how many people, black and white, died during the Red Summer of 1919. However, the number is definitely in the hundreds, if not the thousands. The terrorists burned and smashed millions of dollars of Black wealth, wealth that Black America still hasn’t recovered.
Personally, I don’t know exactly why Red Summer is ignored in history classes. I don’t know if it’s because White Americans destroyed so many lives, or if it’s because Black Americans finally fought back.
“Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!”
– from “If We Must Die” by Claude McKay